Home Abroad: Language

It has been one whole year since I left Kenya for my studies in Europe. A lot has happened in this period. Some occurrences had me think of myself as a Johnny-come-lately into this Western world (and I was) while others had me feel so sorry for my hosts.  The 10-country tour has been a most thought provoking period for me. In all, I have learnt a lot outside the lecture rooms than I anticipated but I also remain with several unanswered questions; some older than myself and others more recent.

To begin with, I suddenly was without a language on arrival in Amsterdam. My main language of communication, English, is only spoken spatteringly and unenthusiastically by the locals. All signs, products and general conversation are in Dutch. It felt awkward to me that these people did not need to learn a language to transact their lives. A number of my friends take pride in their mastery of what they call the ‘Queen’s Language’. Here I was in a land with her own Queen, her own language and whose citizens frowned upon having to speak in any other language. All the 16 million of them! My own native Luo instantly found a new relevance in my mind. Unfortunately, 9000 miles away, I could only converse in my Luo in my mind. It was a fleeting pride, all in the mind. With great difficulty, I learnt to do my shopping using the graphics on the products as my only language. Bees on a jar would mean honey and pastures on a tetra-pack would mean milk. On many occasions, this never worked right. In my quest to keep the relevance of Ugali in my life, I severally bought packets with maize graphics only to realize they were other maize products like cornstarch, which do not make Ugali. This language barrier followed me in every country I went and in every sphere of life; in public transport, at the airports, in restaurants and even once at church.


As a true Kenyan believer, I quickly found my SDA church within the month. My first attendance was marked with the joy of being in familiar company for the first time in many days. Nearly 100% of the congregation was African. Ghanaians made about 80% of the nearly 100-person congregation. A significant portion of the rest were Nigerians. The remaining few were I and a few Dutch associated with the rest through marriage. The language thing reared its head in a strange way. All the children in the congregation only spoke Dutch. Nearly all the adults spoke Dutch too but in addition, the Africans also spoke Ibo and Twi. Twi is one of the main local languages in Ghana and was the official language of communication in this church. What I thought would be a normal church session turned into a mini UN Conference. The children had their service separately in Dutch since they did not speak any other language. The main service was in Twi since they were the majority. A translator was available to translate Twi to Dutch which nearly everyone at the congregation understood anyway. And as if it was not already too complex, there were booths with translators into English, French and Spanish! I have never been back for nothing else but the logistics of language.

At my apartment, my next-door neighbors are two African brothers. Immigrated to Holland from Angola at the height of the civil war as children, the two brothers have been in Holland for 12 years. Naturally, I was glad to have someone from ‘home’ close bye. In my elation, it missed me that Angolans speak Portuguese. So here I was with my wonderful neighbors who only spoke Dutch and Portuguese. Friendships know no languages, so they say, but conversations become rough and hard when half the time all you do is nod and hum at each other. It was not until much later that I met a Kenyan and a South Sudanese classmates who both spoke Kiswahili. My classes and faculty were all in English, for the avoidance of doubt.

I was however to be confronted with another novelty. The ‘personal space’ here is a hallowed possession not to be intruded, or so I think. Coming from a country where I would initiate and reply to tens of greetings a day, I was to rudely learn that things don’t always stay the same. I have met really cheerful people, black and white, who received and said greetings and other social pleasantries like any Kenyan does. However, many are the times I got the cold shoulder for my pleasantries. Grudgingly, I learnt to keep my distance and silence. It became a really cold world of my known friends and acquaintances only. I started wondering how it is that Kenyan strangers in a bus, on the street, in the shops or in a pub could strike a conversation and hold on so easily. I questioned my social skills and my general outlook. Was I repulsive or was it them? While my language handicap limited how interactive I could get, I realized this general coldness had little to do with me as an individual. In the buses, as everywhere else, it is standard fare that no one talks to the other. People almost fear each other. The silence is louder than the bus’ huge engines. The distance is vast and the coldness is biting. Everyone comes with their friends to all public places and leaves with them. A large number just come alone and leave alone.

In this silence, I always raised questions in my mind. How is for Africans who move over to settle in this environment? How do they manage the transition? I am lucky to have travelled back to Kenya thrice over the last year but I know of colleagues who never did. How forlorn did they get? On chit chat with my Angolan neighbors, I asked them how it had been to be away from their family in Africa for 12 years. It was obvious they were grateful to have escaped the war. They felt safe and had a chance at that tender age to attend school and grow like kids. However, I felt empathetic at the sadness in their tones when they recounted the difficulty of being torn away from loved ones all those years. It was most difficult knowing their parents and siblings were in certain danger while they were safely away.  Having no family or friends in a foreign country and culture was a tall hurdle they had jumped. 12 years later, they still do not feel part of the Dutch social fabric despite having mastered the language and many other aspects in between. The one thing they cannot change about themselves is their African appearance and that has put a distance between them and their hosts. When one brother visited Angola last year, the changes that have happened since were too much to handle. Starting life all over again in Angola is a task too herculean with their subsistence wages in Holland. The assumptions back home do not help matters either. They are therefore caught between two worlds. An Angola that accepts and loves them but which they do not understand and a Netherlands that they very well understand but in which they have hit a glass ceiling in all spheres. Their plight makes me cherish my Kenya. She does not match many European countries in many aspects of convenience but I have learnt that being in one’s country is in itself a reason for pride. There is an inexplicable feeling of home and contentment in one’s own country where you speak your first language and buy your food with certainty.


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